Monday, April 7, 2014

My Own Myth Busting

Have I been immersed in history these past few weeks? Yes. Has that history been difficult and sometimes muddled? Yes. Have I been interpreting (and attempting to interpret) that history? Yes. Wouldn't this blog be a great place to write about, say, that history and interpretation? Sure. I'll get around to it. As it turns out, I don't need to use this blog as an outlet so much when I work amongst some stellar interpreters (slash historians). I have the fortune of verbalizing all the thoughts with several folk (each with different backgrounds and contributions). 

One of my specific tasks I have been trying to complete before my departure has been composing a site bulletin (a brochure) on the famed "Raiders," of Andersonville. Why? Well, mostly because I opened my big mouth and said "we should publish a site bulletin on the raiders since obviously people ask about them and this could be a way to address the abounding myths of these guys." My supervisor agreed and issued me the challenge. "Easy peasy," I thought to myself. I like writing. I'm funny, evidently.

As it turns out, this prominent story of the place has been operating on myth for so long, even the few brave enough to write on the subject cite the myths, perpetuating the standing stories. So I got down and dirty and began digging into the primary source material, comparing what diaries said with early accounts against prisoner memoirs and then even later prisoner memoirs.

It amuses me that people think all park rangers hug trees
and save bears. This, in fact, is closer to a park ranger's natural habitat.
This story over the decades evolved from some criminal activity to gangs and gang violence to straight-up battles within the prison. It doesn't quite get here in the mythology, but it is close:

So I dove in and uncovered some evidence revealing that maybe there were more factors to the story than six bad guys who got executed. I'd go into detail, but I am still researching and writing and researching and uncovering. Does that ever stop? (Actually, no). I'll write more on the history of these guys later, I am sure. In the meantime, I navigate how to best deal with the interpretation of this story. Do I start with the myths and deconstruct them? Do I start with what we do know ("the facts were these")?  Do I gently approach this myth or blast it out of the water? It is one thing to engage during informal contacts and I can sense my audience and adjust based on the conversation. Indeed, as with many Andersonville misunderstandings, I have approached each visitor conversation differently depending on the individuals. However, when writing the account, a semi-permanent, broad-reaching device, what is the best approach? I have my ideas, but then I hear colleagues' suggestions and think "whoa, that's good, too!"

How have you known historians or interpreters to rock a myth's existence? What is the best approach here? I am still working this out. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Interpreting Historic Weapons

“Ready.  Aim.  FIRE!”  The crowd applauds with approval as the smoke clears.  “Thank you for visiting the park today, I’ll be around for a few minutes to talk and answer any questions you may have about this weapon” the interpreter in a Civil War uniform tells the visitors as they begin to disperse.  Another historic weapons demonstration in a National Park site concluded.

NPS Historic Weapons Training.  That's me in the
Confederate uniform at center.  Photo: J. Cadoff

 I recently had the opportunity to attend the National Park Service’s Historic Weapons Safety Training program in Anniston, Alabama.  This is one of the premiere training programs in the agency, and numerous state parks and agencies send representatives to this course.  Each NPS site that conducts a historic weapons program is required to have at least one person on staff who has been certified through this training.  Students learn how to safely operate and inspect both small arms and artillery from either the 18th or 19th centuries, depending on their park’s mission.   The emphasis is on safety, and it works - in 2013 there was not a single injury in a National Park site as a result of a historic weapons mishap, an astounding feat considering that there were nearly 10,000 historic weapons programs that reached more than one million visitors.

Instead of simply relying on the guns to get visitors' attention
in hopes that they'll hear the rest of our stories, what if we
use the guns to tell a story?  Photo: C. Barr
After two weeks of thinking about historic weapons in terms of safety and execution, I started thinking about what’s next.  How do we interpret these weapons?  Historic weapons demonstrations are among the most popular programs in the National Park Service, reaching more than a million visitors annually.  Park staff and volunteers conduct many of these programs, while reenactor groups who work with parks do others.  That’s a lot of visitors, volunteers, and partners that form an audience ripe for an interpretive experience.  Thinking back to the dozens of weapons demonstrations I’ve been to, it occurs to me that in almost every one of these the firing of the weapon was the climax of the program.  BANG!  Thanks for visiting.  Where’s the bookstore?  The programs were always safe and gave visitors an idea of how these weapons functioned.  But what if instead of simply interpreting the drill, we started using the weapon to interpret larger stories.
“Let the black man get upon his person the brass letters US, let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth or under the earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.” - Frederick Douglass, 1863.

What a powerful basis for a historic weapons program this is.  The interpreter has the tools he needs handed to him - he is literally carrying everything Douglass described - a musket, a US belt plate, an eagle on his button, and cartridges.  The interpretive program shifts from being a gun demonstration to a powerful program about manhood, citizenship, and the consequences of victory or defeat.  The weapon and its firing are tools to tell that story - firing it becomes a demonstration of claiming citizenship.  What does that armed black soldier represent for the civilian population?

Tearing the cartridge.  Who purchased this cartridge?  What
were their goals in purchasing it?  What does this bullet
represent for both the individual soldier and for the politics
of conflict?  Photo: J. Cadoff
There are a million directions to interpretively take a historic weapons demonstration.  Explore why the soldier is firing this weapon?  What is he defending?  Perhaps instead of interpreting the weapon and the person holding it, talk about the person on the receiving end of the shot.  Every time the weapon is fired tell the story of a child who has lost their father, a woman who is now widowed, a mother who lost their son.  Tell the story of men who are mangled and broken the rest of their lives.  Talk about the dichotomy between the motive of the soldier and the motive of the politicians who purchased his ammunition and sent him to battle.  The weapon firing becomes a demonstration of the political motivation of war and the power to affect an individual.   

Frank, Frederick, & Alice. 
The orphans of Sgt. Humiston,
154th NY, killed at Gettysburg. 
The weapon in the interpreter's
hand killed their father.  LOC Photo
NPS Historic Weapons demonstrations are among the most popular and successful programs in the entire agency.  The infrastructure is in place - trained people are in the field and programs are already scheduled.  Crowds travel from miles around to see and hear the guns.  Let's not just hope that they stick around for something else.  Let's find meaning in those weapons.   

 The opinions expressed in this blog reflect my own personal opinions and observations, and not those of my employers.  This was written on personal time after work.

Chris Barr 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Pointillism as Interpretive Teaching Tool

I headed over to Civil War Memory to find a different article (because it is a wild and crazy Tuesday night, what can I say?) and just saw this post. Completely unintentional, it serves as an outstanding gateway into what I have been pondering recently. In fact, I couldn't have asked for a better introduction.

I recently accepted a position as a park ranger at Andersonville National Historic Site. My work is for a short term and I have only been there a week, but I have already had much to mentally process while learning content and developing my own interpretive tools. Over the next several weeks, I will give formal interpretive talks and informal interpretation is the name of the game while working the front desk (well, that and "the bathrooms are outside and to the right"). One of the things I struggle with while trying to interpret this place is the battle of conveying volume versus personalization. In the usual few moments of time I get with a visitor, how can I demonstrate the vast numbers of souls that experienced this place while providing these souls with an inkling of individual humanity? What is more effective, a macroscopic understanding of this place or a microscopic look into a life? Is there a way I can do both?

Seurat's fine example of pointillism. What is more fascinating?
The individual dots or the grand scheme?
As I have been pondering this idea, the image of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte continued to surface in my mind.  Actually, it was as much of the idea of pointillism as it was a scene from Ferris Bueller's Day Off (I will come back around to interpretation, wait for it). In it, Ferris and his girlfriend and his best friend find themselves in the Art Institute of Chicago. One of my favorite scenes of the movie involves this Seurat painting (starting around minute 1:12 into the clip).

Cameron (Alan Ruck) stands mesmerized by the piece. Through a series of shots, we see how he falls into the painting, focusing on the dots (pretend the scenes that cut to Ferris making out don't exist). I think most who view this piece are more astounded with the detail of the dots than of the piece itself. However, the whole of the painting is composed in a way that invites the viewer's eyes to rest, to absorb.

Granted, a portrayal of a beautiful Sunday afternoon is nearly the opposite of the grand scheme of things at Camp Sumter. It isn't a pleasant rest, but there is something to be absorbed. Each of the soldiers who experienced this place any time between 1864 and 1865 have a story that stretches beyond those years. Even each the 13,000 laid to rest at the national cemetery have legacies and stories, even if their earthly bodies never left that Georgia ground.

We have a grand scheme here, yet each story acts a little like an individual dot of the full painting. Each one completes the whole. Each one is significant. In those few precious moments I have to interact with a visitor, on what factor do I dwell? The scope or the individual? And is one aspect more effective than the other?

(Seriously. These are not just rhetorical questions.)

And Kevin, indeed, the board is on display in the main lobby and anybody walking into the theater passes it. I'll speak for the short-handed, hard-working interpretive staff by saying they have done a stellar job at planning and pulling together as many of the stories to be able to answer tentative questions like you have. While it would be amazing to pick out at least an individual soldier a day, that task is nearly impossible (especially as we approach the summer months and astronomical numbers). I know you weren't suggesting that tactic, necessarily. However, they have several key individuals they can highlight to give meaning to those numbers on the board. An example this week would be one about Dorence Atwater being one of the numbers who arrived 150 years ago this week. His story gives a human face to those numbers and provide a connection for visitors.

*You didn't think I would leave off that oh-so-important disclaimer, did you? I write this entirely for myself, on my days off, and my opinions do not officially reflect those of the National Park Service.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Living in Hearts Left Behind

For the first time in almost 18 months, I donned my flat hat. I had accepted the opportunity to work as a park ranger at Andersonville National Historical Site in Georgia last week and arrived Sunday. It was an emergency hire situation, and over the next several weeks I will be working here as a member of the interpretive staff. To say I am excited about the opportunity might be an understatement. To say I am daunted by some of the challenges I know I will face here is even more of an understatement.

A south Georgia sunset welcomed me to my next few weeks here.
This past week the place existed through its 150th year anniversary of the first Union prisoners to arrive here. It rained some days. The sun beamed on other days. Each day passed, marking the advance of time with sunrises and sunsets.The park staff commemorated both physically at the park and long distance through varying media.
These days are just the launch of a 14-month long series of dates and anniversaries that commemorate the 150th anniversaries the events that took place here during the American Civil War.

"To live in hearts, We leave behind, is not to die." 
 The interpretive staff at the park crafted a presentation of ideas, a foundation that drives some of the commemorations here
 "But, in a sense, these dates are somewhat arbitrary as they mark not an end, but a beginning. For the men who fought in these battles, their memories and sufferings did not fade with the cessation of fighting. February 24 may be the anniversary of the first prisoners arriving, but for the 400 or so men who entered these gates 150 years ago today, this date was not an ending, nor a culmination of planning. It was the beginning of a journey that took these men into the darkest recesses of human experience, where they would be joined by 45,000 of their comrades. It was the beginning of a journey that for many, ended here in a shallow trench. For those that made it out of these gates, this date marked the beginning of a journey that would carry them to other prisons and into years of physical disability and mental anguish. This is the first day of an ordeal that tested the courage, strength, loyalty, and endurance of thousands of soldiers, an ordeal that affected each one of these men for the rest of their lives, from the first man to die on February 27th, 1864 to the last survivor in the early 1940s."
A variety of people and organizations acknowledged this week's anniversaries in blog posts, in tweets, in posts, and news sources. What does it mean to see that a prisoner of war site of the American Civil War would be launched this day in history 150 years ago? I think there will be those already interested in the history following what the site does. I think some will stumble upon this history. I think there will be those who make connections of the past to relevant happenings of today. I always hope there will be more.

The staff at the park actively works to not forget. The park staff works to remember what happened here and fill in the gaps specifically ignored or even altered over the past 150 years. Remembering has been a tradition going on for decades. Now, however, is the time-the big 1-5-0. Now is the time the site has an audience attentive to the significance of the anniversary. Now begins the work of breaking myths and voiding the deliberate acts of forgetting while there is a semi-captive audience. That work, my friends, is messy and heavy and difficult. I am speaking from my few days of experience, never-mind the folks here that have been at this for years. However, after constant immersion of primary sources and accounts of one of the most notorious portals to hell, a sense of duty and privilege begins to grow out of the darkness. "I have to share these stories." The awareness creeps in that is an honor to be the one to perpetuate these memories, to be the one to make sure nobody forgets what humans endured here. Maybe, ultimately, that is why I do what I do.

Stay tuned for the struggles and mind tangles I will use this blog to sort out over the next few weeks.

*AS I USED TO DO AS A FEDERAL EMPLOYEE: This is my disclaimer that all thoughts here are my own, written in my free time and DO NOT reflect that of my employer. If this sounds obnoxious, so is the fact that I have to include this. Please prepare yourself for future snark as I never fully got over the time while with the NPS, I got reported for the fact that I used this medium as one way to illustrate my competencies on my free time only to be reported to powers at be for my writings. That won't happen again! Yours truly, Elizabeth.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Somebody Forgot to Carry the One

You'll have to forgive me. This post is nearly five weeks overdue. Better late than never? But it relates to time and dates, so I am going to pretend I am writing this one late on purpose. What's the point of remembering the actual date, anyway? What's the big deal? (I know some of you interpreter-types have ideas about that and I love to hear them).

A better question is what is the big deal with magic number anniversaries? I have asked this before and will ask it again... why is "150" more important than "151?" That was a thought I had about 11:45am this past New Year's Eve. On that morning's run on my favorite paths (that *happen* to traverse through battlefield property), I had to stop myself when I saw this:


"It's grass, Elizabeth. So what?"

One hundred and fifty one years ago to that moment thousands of soldiers were fleeing through that very space. The Confederate soldiers would have just snapped the Union forces that had been using the Slaughter Pen as a defense position. The Confederates would have been chasing the fleeing Union soldiers through these fields and surrounding patches of woods. They were running just like me... weeeeell, not just like me. Nobody was chasing me. Nobody was shooting at me. I wasn't bleeding, I had no broken bones, no twisted ankles, I wasn't covered in blood. There was no screaming, no firing, no chaos, no booming. In fact, my moment in almost every possible way contrasted what had happened one hundred and fifty one years prior. It was a cool, quiet, sunny day and nobody was around. I had the path entirely to myself. That was my moment of contemplation and remembrance. My heart could break once more for the countless stories I had read of the soldiers (and the thoughts of the stories that remained there, untold). 

One soldier wrote of the scene:
"No language could picture it, no genius could paint it: No one person could see but a small portion of this magnificent panorama of barbaric warfare, none able to comprehend a tithe of its volume, power and terrible grandeur; but all who did hear it and all who did see it, though every nerve of the body was twice dead, could not help but feel it."[M.B. Butler
I will never fully understand what the soldiers experienced. I have been accused of caring too much about historical characters, about making the past too personal. That's just what I do. I can't be a purveyor to the past, I can't make the past "come alive," without making these stories personal. So I took that moment and I pondered. I used my human desire to create meaning by connecting to moments. And even though somebody forgot to carry that one, likely because there is no fancy word equivalent to "sesquicentennial" for "one hundred and fifty one years," the idea of connecting to the place at the time fueled more meaning to my remembering. 

Besides, when you visit a place on the 151st anniversary, you don't have to deal with as many crowds.

Monday, February 3, 2014

There Stands Jackson (Like a Stone Wall Standing Like a Stone Wall Standing)

Since I currently do not hold a "real" or "permanent" or "full-time" history job, sometimes I feel like I don't contribute as much to the historical education, preservation, or interpretation world (and feel as if this blog is just a place where I "fake it"). I know. That doesn't make sense and I should give myself more credit. I actively engage in formal and informal interpretation weekly during historic tours of Nashville. I volunteer my interpretive services at a local battlefield. I even still read boring history books. Ha. But since I also hold a mind-numbing, part-time, non-history job in addition to my history "projects," I tend to fall out of the thinking-about-how-to-share-my-passion groove and just try to get through some days. 

I am finding the value in this period of my life rests in the constant exposure to non-historically thinking folks. I seek out friends and colleagues to exercise my historical thinking and interpretive practice, but my day-to-day does not naturally include these things. So when anything, and I mean anything, related to history pops up, I get excited. Recently, I attended a broadcasting and taping of a Music City Roots show. The weekly show hosts bluegrass, Americana, country, folk, and other assorted genres. I went knowing two of the artists, interested in a third. I left blown away by all of the acts. What does that have to do with history? Well, the first band opened the entire show with this song:

If you haven't already, the Westbound Rangers are definitely worth checking out for their other non-history songs, too.

Catchy as hell, it got the audience tapping toes and clapping hands. "There stands Jackson like a stone wall standing, like a stone wall standing like a stone wall standing..." Did you see that? I can't even enjoy a lovely, music-filled evening without reminiscences of the American Civil War echoing. Oh, wait. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening AND the song. It did, however, get me thinking of how people connect to the past. (Because even though I admitted earlier to not feeling adequate because of my lack of "real" history in my life, I can't just turn off my natural tendencies and past trainings).

This rowdy bunch connected to the past by writing a song about it, although they are certainly not the first to write or record a song about Stonewall Jackson (standing like a stonewall standing like a stonewall standing). In fact, it isn't even the first time somebody wrote a catchy tune about the past. I don't know their motivation for the subject matter, but obviously they had to at least read up on the subject. I don't know if that song inspired anybody to go out and read a book about Stonewall Jackson (standing like a stonewall standing like a stonewall standing), but they had to at least activate that part of the brain that was likely filled in fifth grade. "Stonewall Jackson... that's the Civil War... oh, right and the Mexican War..." And the audience had this history slipped into their expected music-filled evenings. 

As I thought of the Westbound Rangers and their catchy, historically-based song, I remembered another modern song involving the Civil War. The staff at Andersonville National Historic Site in Georgia exposed me to this song. Now, the thing that seemingly detracts from this song is the fact that the members of Quiet Hounds wear masks. To clarify, that is more or less the band's "thing" or identity; they don't mean any disrespect. But they visited Andersonville National Historic Site in order to learn more of what they knew was a horrific part of American history. They then created a song and video that both reflects the history and adds layers of interpretation: 

Some of the neatest shots are of the park. [Note: The band filmed according to park regulations.]

These musicians were moved by the stories they heard of the place. They understood the significance of the place. In their own way, they contributed to the preservation of the place by creating awareness of the history and the site while humanizing the story. Folks listening to this band may not naturally think "I think I will visit a local site of historical conscience today"but possibly after watching the video (and reading some of the descriptions), they may decide to make a trip to Andersonville. Or read about the place. Or heck, just run a quick Google search and allow twenty seconds of thought to filter through their budy lives. 

In either case, people made their own connections with the past and then created something they could share with others. The spark that ignited them to create is what I consider the essence of "interpretation." 

*I don't want to take away from the marvelous staff at Andersonville. I believe they could share the story of the development and depth of the "Beacon Sun" song and video better than I. The masks worn by the band tend to turn folks off from what the band was trying to do, but there is weight to the song. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Comments on Veterans Day

I worked at a national park site, developing various social media posts. It took months to create the social media plan and that plan included having a set amount of ready-to-go interpretive posts (those were in addition to the posts that would be created on the fly, inspired by events and activities happening at that moment). Holidays proved easy to create those pre-planned posts. Picture, fact or quote, "Happy [whatever holiday we are celebrating today]!" and bam: we've got some content. That worked well especially considering holidays meant more visitors and less staff. The last thing (generally) a front-line interpreter is thinking about is developing an interpretive post.

I still follow a ton of parks on Facebook and Twitter. I used to follow them just to see what they were posting, how they were posting, and if there was any content that we could connect with them from our site. Now I follow all of them just because. On patriotic holidays, my feeds are jamb-packed with American flags. Season changes mean lots of picture of trees. Trees! Today meant Veterans Day posts. I knew it was going to happen. Heck, I even posted something acknowledging the holiday. As I scrolled down, this post caught my eye:

Look! There are even ladies wearing cute hats! Any time I see an historic photo, my eye automatically stops (unlike when I see those pictures of trees... my eyes tend to keep going). The photo is pretty good. The idea is pretty good. I'm pretty familiar with the story, having worked there for years and volunteer there, currently. So far this morning, the photo has fourteen shares and sixty-five likes. That's pretty good. However, the most poignant thing about this post comes from one thought-provoking question in the comments section:

 This virtual visitor made a quality point. Let us remember those veterans who served to protect this nation and the free thinking individuals within and the fact that those free thinking individuals have the right to share ideas. Happy Veterans Day.

*Mostly out of habit, but here it is: all thoughts contained within this post are my own and do not reflect that of the National Park Service.